Remote work and pandemic: An opportunity for people with disabilities?

Opposing views still exist on how technology can benefit work inclusion for people with disabilities. However, the current context makes it possible to take advantage of several opportunities, taking action so that nobody is left behind.

Although, prior to the pandemic some progress had been made to offer people with disabilities the possibility of working remotely, home office was still the exception, not the rule. In fact, historically, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities of productive age in most developed countries is at least twice that of persons without disabilities. Meanwhile, in developing countries, it is estimated that 80-90% of people with disabilities are unemployed. 

Moreover, in the present context, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labor market has reached alarming numbers throughout the world, primarily in the most vulnerable populations, as is the case of people with disabilities. In Latin America mainly, remote work is an opportunity and an outstanding debt at the same time: on the one hand, remote connection promotes higher accessibility, helping break down structural barriers people with disabilities face to get a job; on the other hand, there are still challenges to overcome.

To this regard, Gabriel Marcolongo, CEO of Inclúyeme.com —a B corporation present in seven Latin American countries that promotes social and labor inclusion of people with disabilities—, says that: “Although technology removes obstacles for the population who owns a computer and has access to a quality Internet connection, the situation is more complex in Latin America, as there is more inequality and almost half of the population is below the poverty line. That is why many people must resort to manual labor and, for these persons who are unable to leave their homes, technology is not enough to get their livelihoods, and there is a lack of solutions.” Thus, the digital gap is the main barrier, since people with disabilities who do not have access to basic connectivity and/or digital literacy are left outside the market. In Latin America, one out of five people with disabilities has become unemployed for pandemic-related reasons, and over 60% think that they will have difficulties to return to their jobs after the pandemic.

That is why, in order to satisfy the needs of a global talent market, people with disabilities require a given skill set.  Opportunity can be found here: upon acquiring key skills for the new digital market, they could better satisfy the needs of the global talent market, in particular, of the technological industry, which currently is a full-employment market. For example, software developers who speak English can work for companies located anywhere in the world. With only a computer and Internet access, they can offer their services and talent from any place. In these cases, technology unlocks a lot of opportunities. In response to the new market needs, Inclúyeme is providing technology training to over 1,000 individuals to improve their chances of accessing this global market that is increasingly demanding more talent.

Remote work opportunities

Marcolongo claims that, during the first part of the pandemic, companies “learned how to use technological tools in pursuit of accessibility, such as holding accessible meetings through Zoom or consider implementing remote opportunities for persons who did not live near the offices.” Also, searching for talents without regard to their location creates labor opportunities from any place in the world for a global market.

In turn, the International Labour Organization (ILO), highlights that the inclusion of people with disabilities is central to “the COVID-19 socio-economic response and to ensure no one is left behind: the perspectives and life experiences of persons with disabilities can help create innovative solutions to tackle the crisis and ensure a more equitable society for all.” Therefore, public policies and private initiatives are crucial to bring opportunities to people with disabilities who are unemployed and to those who will not be able to return to their jobs after the pandemic.

Without dismissing these challenges, Diversity and Inclusion Expert Paula Morgan ensures that the new normal makes it possible for people with disabilities to work remotely and may, thus, offer the chance of reducing commuting.  The current context also brings about the opportunity of having a job that is better suited to the needs of each person, so that the best possible professional development can be achieved. For people with disabilities, working from home may even represent a decrease in the (physical) barriers that they could face in their day-to-day activities when working on site. From this perspective, what used to be a potential obstacle in a physical space may not be present in a remote environment. 

Redefining global rules 

The COVID-19 crisis and forced lockdown reset the rules of the game in organizations; and the ways of working (of people with disabilities) are no exception. In this regard, Dorie Clark, Professor at Duke University’s School of Business and specialist in organizational transformation, ensures that one of the main challenges posed is how to build and maintain the political capital that is necessary to be effective and successful at work when working virtually and away from colleagues. Or rather, when working remotely, innovation in leading is in the spotlight. 

In view of these circumstances, Clark proposes that the solution consists in leaders who are able to develop their emotional intelligence in order to lead more effectively, considering the individuality and distinctive features of each person. Leaders must be prepared to work with remote teams. Some elements to consider when reinventing management and leadership include: promoting trust within the team, good communication to anticipate employees’ worries, and implementing systems that are necessary to guarantee a circuit that works. This way, leaders will know that they may count on the team and that employees will be available when needed. In short, qualified and flexible leaders will have a direct impact on bonds of trust and on the team’s performance, regardless of the work modality and even if working remotely.

On this understanding, organizations clearly face a potential challenge that is also an opportunity: working on tangible actions and strategies to effectively include people with disabilities. In this context, including them through virtual modalities could be a competitive advantage. On the one hand, to ensure that work practices are accessible to achieve effective professional development, and on the other, because the most solid organizations should realize that employing people with disabilities adds value and is also more profitable, since the team is more disruptive and willing to experiment and anticipate the market. On that subject, Paul Polman, Co-founder and Chair of IMAGINE —a for-benefit foundation and corporation accelerating business leadership to achieve the Global Goals—, Chair of The Valuable 500, Vice-Chair of the UN Global Compact, and CEO of Unilever, claims that many organizations have not seen the overwhelming evidence that diversity confidence has material benefits for the business.

In this matter, World Economic Forum’s researcher Sean Fleming estimates that almost 40% of all jobs in the US could be done from home, drastically reducing reliance on the private motor vehicle. In spite of that, a complete shift to remote work involves some challenges that should be considered. Along these lines, Mary Baker, consultant at market research company Gartner Survey, states that 82% of companies plan to allow employees to work remotely some of the time in the future. The increase in remote work gives a unique opportunity to organizations and their leaders: the way in which they generate political capital can be reconfigured. In other words, it is a chance to increase the confidence and commitment of all members of the organization.

How we can use technology and the current remote work context to increase employment of people with disabilities

(Sources: ILO, Duke University, Forbes, Inclúyeme)

  • Custom training people with disabilities on technology to satisfy global market’s needs
  • Guaranteeing connectivity and access to a computer in order to make quality remote work possible
  • Promoting corporate policies that drive inclusive work opportunities with the necessary and reasonable adjustments
  • Generating concrete policies to satisfy these specific needs of people with disabilities
  • Giving possible financial support as an incentive for employers of people with disabilities 
  • Promoting mechanisms for the inclusion of disability that help provide a better answer for everyone, making systems more agile and able to respond to complex situations

ILO RECOMMENDATIONS: COVID-19 and the World of Work “Ensuring the inclusion of persons with disabilities at all stages of the pandemic response”

  • New forms of work and employment relations integrate disability inclusion
  • Skills development and life-long learning programs made inclusive of persons with disabilities
  • Universal Design embedded in development of all new infrastructure, products and services
  • Assistive Technologies, existing and newly developed, made affordable and available
  • Measures to include persons with disabilities in growing and developing areas of the economy

In Terms of Remote Management and Leadership

  • In addition to this, and in the face of a new almost fully digital leadership, it is imperative to promote more than ever positive relationships with a horizontal connection among teams: employees must have frequent contact not only with their manager, but also with their colleagues so that they are aware of what each one has been doing. Proactively building positive relationships, regardless of distance.
  • Reconfiguring guidelines to face the global reconfiguration that leadership is experiencing today, as a flexible and transformative skill for the future. 
  • Creating teams in an innovative manner, teams that are truly diverse, that include and value employees for what they are, and that give them a sense of belonging.

Some essential elements when reinventing team management include: promoting trust within the team, communicating in excess to anticipate employees’ worries, and implementing systems that are necessary to guarantee a circuit that works (Stephanie K. Johnson, author of Inclusify. The Power of Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams). 

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